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Mike Wells set to direct final NASCAR race for NBC Sports

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For the last four Labor Day weekends, each visit to Darlington Raceway on “Throwback Weekend” has been a trip down memory lane for NASCAR.

Especially for the man who has helped oversee packaging and presenting some of the most indelible images in stock-car racing over the past four decades.

“During the (Southern 500) broadcasts, we play back historic races of Darlington, and I’m going, ‘Oh yup, I did that one, and yeah, I did that one,’” Mike Wells, who is in his 38th season of directing NASCAR races, said recently with a chuckle. “One of the most memorable races – and there’s a number of them – but Bill Elliott was the first one to get the Winston Million and I directed that one, and that was a pretty cool thing. There’s just so many different ones, quite frankly.”

Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway on NBC will mark the last chance for the 21-time Emmy Award winner to leave his stamp on creating NASCAR memories as he closes a run that began in 1981 at Rockingham Speedway.

Wells said he has lost precise count of how many hundreds of races he has directed since then, but he estimates snapping his fingers – his signature method of calling for a camera change – several hundred thousand times in production trucks at racetracks around the country.

That distinct rhythm will move to another racing circuit next year as NBC Sports takes over full coverage of the IndyCar Series, and Wells directs the Indianapolis 500 and other select races.

“Mike’s contributions to NBC Sports and NASCAR during the past 37 seasons have been immeasurable,” said Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports. “His legacy as an Emmy Award-winning director and innovator in the sport is second only to his reputation as a tremendous teammate, leader and mentor to so many who have had the privilege of working with him.

“While it’s bittersweet for this to be Mike’s final NASCAR race for us, we can’t think of a better person to direct NBC’s inaugural Indy 500 in 2019.”

Fittingly, Talladega has been the site for much of Wells’ most memorable race direction in NASCAR.

He was selecting the camera angles for the May 4, 1986 race that began with a fan stealing the pace car. Wells was in the production truck a year later at Talladega when rookie Davey Allison scored his first Cup victory and was congratulated in victory lane by his father, Bobby, whose car had flown into the frontstretch catchfence earlier in the race and caused nearly a 3-hour delay (NASCAR instituted restrictor plates the following season).

Wells also was at Talladega to frame the Oct. 15, 2000 dash by Dale Earnhardt from 18th to first in the final five laps of the last victory of his career.

The Nov. 15, 1992 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway – which marked Alan Kulwicki winning the championship in the final race of Richard Petty and the debut of Jeff Gordon – also was directed by Wells.

“Again, it was just really special to be a part of that whole thing,” said Wells, who also takes pride in directing the first Daytona 500 win, Brickyard 400 victory and championship for Jimmie Johnson during the ’06 season. He also worked Johnson’s seventh championship in the Nov. 20, 2016 season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway.

Wells said it’s tough to pick a favorite track, but he can recall many of their special moments, such as Tony Stewart’s July 2, 2005 win at Daytona International Speedway.

“He climbed up in the flagstand, and we had a camera there, and the fireworks were going off behind him,” Wells said. “My job is to capture the moments, and that was a moment.”

Raised in Milwaukee (where his house was a few miles from a speedway, and he could hear the cars on weekends), Wells’ introduction to race direction came at Eldora Speedway in 1980 when he spent time with track founder Earl Baltes during a camera survey.

“That’s kind of how I really got interested in racing, and a year later, I’m doing NASCAR,” said Wells, who was hired by NASCAR Hall of Famer Ken Squier to direct his first race. “It was pretty cool.”

Technology has changed markedly in the interim with Wells chuckling as he recalls team members once helping carry the cables on handheld cameras used to cover pit stops (they are now wireless).

Back then, just the cable for a camera was four times the size, and quite frankly, you were limited by the length of the cable or you started losing picture,” Wells said. “So now you can go an indefinite amount of miles because of the fiber. That’s probably one of the biggest technical achievements. Certainly the in-car cameras and the robocams and the BatCams, those kind of things, really are huge. It was tough getting in and out of the pit area with them tied to a cable.”

In the past two seasons, Wells also has been pleased by the positive impact on race production by the addition of stages “because you’re guaranteed restarts and now you actually get less green-flag commercials because those commercials are built in during the caution. So the fan at home actually gets to see more green-flag racing than they would have in the past.”

While he largely is responsible for what fans see as a race director, Wells constantly credits his co-workers for the quality of the broadcasts that typically involve a crew of more than 100 people.

He recently was touched when a former longtime camera operator on his crew drove from Phoenix to Las Vegas last month just to visit for an evening with Wells before he directed his last playoff opener.

“You just can’t beat that,” Wells said. “It’s such a close-knit family anyway. I keep saying we’re like a traveling gypsy show, and we are. You just feel so proud that someone would take the time to do that.”

You can hear Wells recount his career during a 2016 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast by listening below or via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or Google Play.

Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus open up about split

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CONCORD, N.C. – We learned Wednesday they won’t be finishing their careers together, but how long will Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus continue to compete in NASCAR?

Those were among the questions the driver and crew chief of the No. 48 Chevrolet faced Thursday during their first extended media availability since their impending split was announced. The duo, which has seven championships, will finish out the last six races of the 2018 season.

Johnson, who turned 43 last month, said he wanted to race for another 10 to 15 years but was unsure how long in Cup. His contract with Hendrick Motorsports runs through the 2020 season.

“I don’t have that answer,” he said. “I’m as hungry as I’ve ever been.  I’m as committed as I’ve ever been. It’s not crossing my mind, I have not thought retirement.

“I know that social media likes to light up and have different opinions and it’s all a bunch of B.S. I’m here to win races and win championships.  This is my passion, this is my job, this is what I do, this is who I am.  I’m here to race.  If and when I stop racing Cup full time, I’m still going racing.  I just want to race 20 times a year instead of 38 or 39 times a year.”

Knaus, who turned 47 and became a first-time father in August, has said before he intended to be done as a crew chief before he turned 50, possibly moving into a management role. But in becoming the crew chief for William Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet (a longtime dream since he worked on Jeff Gordon’s championship-winning No. 24), Knaus left open the possibility of staying on the road and atop the pit box for longer.

“I’m not 50 yet,” Knaus said with a laugh. “I mean, I’m not going to be a reporter, so I’ve got to do something.

“I really love this company. My goal was to be here long-term.  If it’s in a capacity as a crew chief we will ride that until it’s time for me not to be. The decision (will) be made by myself and by Mr. Hendrick only the way I see it. Brooke (Knaus’ wife) was involved in this 100 percent.  As we started going through everything.  Even when I signed my two-year contract earlier this year, she was a very integral part of the decision-making process because we are paying attention to where we are at and what we are going to be doing in the future.  As of right now, the crew chief thing is what we want to do. I want to do it.  If I’m happy, she’s happy.”

Hendrick Motorsports vice president of Jeff Andrews said “that’s ultimately Chad and Mr. Hendrick’s decision. We’re committed to this relationship right now.

“I know that Chad wouldn’t commit to do it if he had short-term plans about it. He knows that it’s going to take some level of commitment. That commitment is going to be possibly years to get the success out of it that he expects and we expect out of it.”

Here’s the full transcript of their 40-minute meeting with a group of reporters at the Hendrick Motorsports campus Thursday afternoon.

Q: When did you come to this decision? Has this been in the works?

Johnson: “It hasn’t been a short-term decision or something that just happened in the recent time. It’s been an ongoing conversation that we’ve all had. The timing, just the way that it worked out, this is the week that it’s coming out to the public and we’re announcing it. Over the years, we’ve certainly had our heated moments, but the commitment we’ve had to one another, our relationship and the success of the team; we’ve invested a lot in that and put a lot of time in it. The decision to split up, it took a long time to make that decision as well. It’s not something that was like ‘ok, yeah that’s what we’re going to do.’ We put a lot of thought into it, worked on it and I think that we have a really strong plan moving forward. Just getting through this week, get it behind us and get to work on what’s next for both of us and the teams.”

Knaus: “It’s the right time with the company with what we’ve got going on. We made a huge fundamental shift last year with the way the way that we operate at Hendrick Motorsports; combining the two buildings and putting four teams under one roof essentially. There’s time for evolution that creates opportunity for a lot of people. Obviously, Kevin, Darian and myself. We’ve got to do what we feel is best for the No. 48, we’ve got to do what we feel is best for the other parts of the company. It’s just the right time.”

Q: You both signed through 2020. Why break up now instead of finishing out the contracts together?

Knaus: “It’s all opportunity at the right time. I signed with Hendrick Motorsports. My contract has always said with Hendrick Motorsports. It hasn’t necessarily said for the No. 48 team. I love Rick. I love this company. I’ve been here, I was telling some of the guys in the shop, this is like 25 years for me with this company. I was here well before the No. 48 was ever even thought of. To sign a contract with Hendrick Motorsports last year was an honor for me. Obviously, I love racing, I love this community and I love that it is what I do. Just the opportunity and the right time. Everything has got to be about timing and Rick’s pretty good about putting these timing pieces together. It’s right.”

Johnson: “To go with that, we both are fierce competitors and want to win. The last two years, although we did win three races last year, the year ended, it was difficult. This year has been tough as you guys all know and have lived with us. We’re fierce competitors, we both want to win races, we both want to win championships and we acknowledge the fact that we’ve had a hell of a run. It’s been a long, amazing run of seventeen years. Sometimes, change brings new opportunity. Change brings excitement, a new breath of fresh air, a spark. Whatever it might be, that opportunity is now here for us. We’ve been highly committed to each other, this team and our relationship, but it’s just to the point where we feel like change is the next step and potentially the next step for our next level of greatness as individuals. It just feels like it’s time.”

Q: So no more cookies and milk meetings?

Johnson: “That was a starting point of us both having a lot of personal growth. Over the years, I guess there haven’t been that many documented moments but I promise you; the reason we lasted 17 years together is because of, it started with the milk and cookies meeting but many of the other discussions, meetings, sessions over the years, whatever it is, we’re communicating on a deep level. A level that’s like a brotherhood more than a working relationship. That’s how you go 17 years. Milk and cookies is the one that we all know about and the start of some of these difficult conversations that have been very impactful and meaningful for us but, that was a long time ago.”

Q: What made this not repairable?

Johnson: “I think you could sense that it’s not that things are broken.”

Knaus: “It’s not like we’re trying to kill each other. That’s not where this is. It’s an opportunity for growth for both of us. We’ve lasted longer than the average length of a marriage in the United States. We’ve worked really hard. In order to be committed in a team-oriented environment for that long, there’s a lot of deep digging that you have to get through. And we’ve done that and we’ve put forth the effort and it’s time right now to do something different. It really is it’s the right time for the company. We have a young driver in William Byron. We’ve got growth within the company we’ve got a fairly young crew chief in Kevin that needs an opportunity. There’s a lot of things that are falling at the right place right now. Jimmie and I, we love each other, we fight like brothers which has been perfectly documented. It’s perfectly fine, we’re okay with that. We’ve answered way harder questions than this before in the past. It’s just the right time for everybody.”

Q: Chad, you worked on the no. 24, now you get to go back and work with a young driver in William Byron. How invigorating is that for you?

Knaus: “You have no idea. I’m so geeked up by it. I have goosebumps when I think about it. I told some guys here yesterday, the No. 24 guys, I started here in 1993 and in 1993 when I walked in the door and I started to work in that little shop up on the hill when we had about 14 full-time employees, I was about the 75th teammate here because I wanted to be crew chief on the No. 24 car. It’s only taken me 25 years and 17 years with this guy to get the opportunity to be able to do that. I’m really proud of that. I’m excited, we had Dupont which is now Axalta on the No. 24 car back then. I’m going to the No. 24 car with Axalta, which was Dupont. Jeff was 21-years-old, William’s going to be 21-years-old next year. It’s a really neat thing. I’m stoked. I really am. I’m sad that this chapter is… It’s not over. I mean you can’t, what people think, ‘the era’s over,’ you can’t erase what we’ve done. It’s not over. It’s going to live forever.”

Johnson: “It’s not over and we’re lifers with this company. This is home for us and our collaboration of working together, it’s ending to the way that we’re all familiar with it being, but it’s not over. My interaction with the young drivers, with the crew chiefs in general, Chad’s input, to me, that line of communication, the ability to work together is still there.”

Q: Will you still be working together in some capacity at Hendrick?

Johnson: “Extremely and in the way, we’ve restructured things at Hendrick, absolutely. It’s gone to a whole new level for our culture here in the company. The amount of time I see other crew chiefs, other teammates and team members, this year is probably equal to what I’ve seen of those teammates and drivers in 16 years. We all live in the same space. The collaboration amongst all four drivers and crew chiefs is really high and it’s only going to continue to grow.”

Q: Who was the first to suggest the idea of the split?

Knaus: “Whichever one of us was pissed anytime between the last 16 years.

Q: What about this time, though?

Johnson: “I have to say ultimately, it’s Rick’s call. It’s Hendrick Motorsports. We’ve had a lot of very open conversations and discussions but in the end, Rick is the one that makes the decisions.”

Q: Did you guys argue with that decision?

Knaus: “You have to argue internally a little bit to make sure that you’re buying into it but I think we all understood with what we’ve gone through over the years, the performance of the No. 48 right now that it’s time to go ahead and do something different.”

Q: How did you reach that point? 

Johnson: “It’s a lot of honesty and a lot of communicating with all three involved, including Rick obviously. It’s us having hard conversations and when the idea was brought up, looking at all the pieces of the puzzle that could potentially move and what that would mean. But honestly, it comes from manning up in a lot of ways. That is the process we had to go through. As you can imagine, it hasn’t been easy and it’s certainly not fun but through tough conversations, conversations I think we could see, we experienced some optimism and we could see a plan laid out that started to make sense.”

Q: When this was presented, how did the internal conversation go with making a list of pros and cons?

Knaus: “I think you are going way too far into this.  Let’s be frank, whoever thought that this would have gone 17 years?  My point is this, instead of reflecting on what is the unknown, reflect a little bit on what we accomplished.  And that is what I have really focused on.  We have done amazing things over the course of our career.  It should not have stemmed the span that it did.  That is very, very comforting to me, personally. You can try to twist it all you want and do that stuff, but that is not what it is about.  There are great opportunities for both of us.  Jimmie has still got years left in him to drive and I have still got a couple of years left in me to be a crew chief.  We are going to go and do that.  It wasn’t as tumultuous as what you may think.  Everything is about timing.  This is the right time.”

Q: So you have a couple of years left as a crew chief …

Knaus (smiling): “God you really dig.  You don’t know, man.  You just don’t know.  As of right now the goal is going to be for me personally is go build the No. 24 team to be the best team that I am possibly capable of.  And we go and we win… I doubt very highly that William (Byron) and I will be together for 17 years (laughs).”

Q: Jimmie has been asked before about getting a new crew chief, and the answer always was he didn’t want to find out what it would be like. What is your feeling now?

Johnson: “Yeah, we have all had to make tough decisions in life.  Making the decision is the hardest part and it certainly took us all time to make this decision, but once the decision has been made and we start looking at our teams, what is going to happen, the people that are coming in, the opportunities that I have to grow as a leader of the No. 48 team, Chad’s opportunity to work on the No. 24 team, there is a lot of excitement there.  We live in a performance-based world and ultimately that is what we will be judged by. But, I have never let that fear steer me.  There have been other things internally that steer me and I see a great opportunity here.  I look back at 17 years, 7 championships, 83 wins so far, which we plan to change that with the remaining races we have left.  I have a lot of pride.  Again, it wasn’t an easy decision.  It took time to make it and you go through the thoughts of seeing it end.  Could we have finished together?  Of course, we have batted around all the questions that you are asking, but at some point, you have to go with your gut and it just feels right.  We have had a hell of a run.  And a new spark probably wouldn’t hurt us. There is something to that and something new that we can both participate in.  And then still at the same time be there for one another on a level that I don’t think has ever existed when a driver/crew chief do split. These splits usually are pretty tough.  And in our situation, it’s not that. So, I have an ally and he has an ally.  Where can that help us both grow? So, once you make the decision and you start putting one foot in front of the other I often find a lot of excitement in those moments and I have in this.  I really have in this moment.”

Q: Did you have any input on choosing Kevin (Meendering) as the new crew chief?

Johnson: “Yeah, absolutely involved in the decision process on that.  It’s a very logical step for us when we look at our relationship with JR Motorsports.  Greg Ives (crew chief for Alex Bowman) left here, went there, came back, Kevin is doing the same thing.  Kevin has a long history here at Hendrick Motorsports.  Started in the fab shop.  I worked next to him in the same shop as he was the lead engineering on the No. 88 car for so many years.  There is definitely… we have a system in place and we have been able to use it a couple of times.  There are some other examples too.”

Knaus: “There are a bunch, you look at (Steve) Letarte, you look at (Alan) Gustafson, you look at myself, you look at Kevin, Greg Ives, it’s always better for and I think our company stands to bring somebody from within than it is to necessarily bring somebody from outside.  Especially, with what it is that we are trying to breed and cultivate up there in that building now with the team work. It shows the people that come to work here at Hendrick Motorsports that there is unlimited opportunity of growth.  So, I think that, in my opinion, I’m not trying to speak for Jimmie here, he is the perfect person to come in because as you start to give somebody new responsibility the levels that they can rise to are amazing.  So, I think it’s great.”

Q: What do you like about Kevin’s style?

Johnson: “His pedigree… I haven’t worked alongside of him yet, I have watched from across the hall in a sense when he was on the No. 88 car.  But the amount of respect everybody here at Hendrick Motorsports has for him, from Chad to Alan Gustafson, you name the crew chief, even throughout the industry…I’ve been receiving text messages from competitors saying ‘hey he’s a sharp guy and a great choice’.  So, his reputation and the way people hold his work ethic and his value the way they look and think of him.  Speaking with drivers that have worked with him, how much fun he likes to have, how easy going he is.  There are a lot of traits and qualities there that I’m very excited about.  It’s awesome to have a lead engineer graduate into that crew chief role with as technical as our sport is.  Knowing his background and the years that he has been in our system to understand our simulation, to understand all of our departments, how all that works, I have a lot of excitement around that as well.”

Q: What advice do you have for William working with Chad?

Johnson: “I am really excited for William.  We have chatted quite a bit about it and I feel that William is a lot like me.  He likes to be coached along.  I think there are some personalities that liked to be coached and others that don’t thrive or succeed in that environment.  William is a lot like me in that he likes to be coached and with Chad’s wisdom and years and experience his intensity and desire to win, I think it could do a lot of good for him.  I’m really excited for him.”

Q: Chad, can you build William up to Jimmie’s level?

Johnson: “I’ll answer it: Yes. William is a hell of a talent, absolutely. You just see and experience things on track.  William’s ascent into the Cup Series, I mean nobody has gotten here faster, and it’s for good reason.  The kid has a ton of talent.  I think he is going to have a great opportunity with Chad.”

Q: Are you taking the no. 48 crew to the no. 24?

Knaus: “No, surely there will be some movement at the end of the season.  That happens everywhere on every race team and all around our industry.  I don’t know exactly how all that is going to unfold, but right now, the way it sits the No. 48 team which we finally have just gotten… we had a huge change on the No. 48.  New car chief, mechanics, new engineers, new shock specialist all throughout the course of this year was a huge growth year for the No. 48.  So, we want to try to keep those guys together as much as possible because they are starting to… as you can see with our performance, starting to hit their stride.  Really starting to get things going. So, the majority of that team will stay with the No. 48.”

Q: So this will be the opposite of the No. 24 and 88 switch of just drivers in 2011?

Knaus: “Completely different.  Instead of switching drivers we are switching crew chiefs with the teams.”

Q: You have said before you don’t want to be a crew chief past 50. Do you still have management aspirations? 

Knaus: “I’m not 50 yet (laughs). Yes, maybe, yeah for sure, I’ve got to do something.  I mean I’m not going to be a reporter, so I’ve got to do something (laughs).  I guess maybe part-time analyst is what we call it.  But, yeah, I love this company.  I really love this company. My goal was to be here long-term.  If it’s in a capacity as a crew chief we will ride that until it’s time for me not to be.  The decision to be made by myself and by Mr. Hendrick only the way I see it.  Brooke (Knaus, wife) was involved in this 100 percent.  As we started going through everything.  Even when I signed my two-year contract earlier this year, she was a very integral part of the decision-making process because we are paying attention to where we are at and what we are going to be doing in the future.  As of right now, the crew chief thing is what we want to do. I want to do it.  If I’m happy, she’s happy.  Kip (Knaus, son) he’s never happy, but we are working on that (laughs).”

Q: Do you feel at all like you are starting over because you are going back to a driver that doesn’t have any experience?

Knaus: “Yeah, you guys remember Ron Malec our car chief who is a great friend of Jimmie’s and a great friend of mine and a huge part of what it is that we do.  He and I were just talking a moment ago, I don’t think people understand how quickly he (William Byron) has risen to where he is.  This kid has got a boat load of talent.  So, for me to get the opportunity to work with him is just like getting the opportunity to work with Jimmie back then. That excitement level is very, very similar. Now, it’s a little different right because back then we didn’t have anything. We hadn’t won a race, we hadn’t done much of anything.  I’m very fortunate that I’ve won some races. He has already won a championship in the Xfinity Series and the kid is 20 years old.  It’s exciting for me, it really is.  Again, I’m an old racer guy, but I’m totally geeked to be crew chief on the No. 24 car.  I’m not lying when I said that when I started here I was like ‘man I want to be crew chief on that No. 24 car’.  I always wanted to be Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, I didn’t make that happen, but I was at least crew chief for his team and for his car number.”

Q: Was there any thought of you going over to the No. 24 for the final few races of 2018?

Knaus: “I think it was tossed around a little bit.  Jimmie and I talked about it one day, but really man I want to stay with the No. 48 and ride this thing out for the rest of the year.  I think we are to the point… I think we are at the point that we can still go out there and win races.  The team is just starting to really get rolling.  If you look at (Las) Vegas, man we were fast we could have won Las Vegas.  I know the stats don’t show it and all that kind of stuff, but Richmond we could have potentially won Richmond. We could have won the Roval.  Dover, how that freak accident happened I have absolutely no idea, but again, thank God it happened when it did.”

Johnson: “A lap earlier or a lap later I could have been seeing stars and birds flying around my head.”

Knaus: “So, yeah, we are sticking this thing out.  We can win a race or two before the end of the year starting this weekend.”

Q: Was Ron Malec in the discussion to be your new crew chief?

Johnson: “No.  I think Ron… I’m trying to think back years ago.  There probably was a fork in the road for Ron to pursue that opportunity 10 years ago.  Ron’s commitment to me and this No. 48 team, he was so happy in the role he was in as the car chief and then through his efforts and how much everybody believes in him the opportunity came about in the shop for him to ascend to that next spot and now he is over all of those guys.  So, Ron’s decision was made several years back and the path he was going to go down.”

Q: Did you consider any outside candidates?

Johnson: “You know there are certainly some names that are out there that are desirable guys to look at, but ultimately within and within our system is something that Rick (Hendrick) started this process a long time ago and he has invested a lot of time and effort into it and we have a lot of talent right here that we need to look at.  The relationship with JR Motorsports, that whole piece the way all of that works, that is what it’s there for.  And we have put a lot of time and effort into this system and we need to see that through.”

Q: How much longer do you want to race?

Johnson: “Ten, 15 years.  It might not be in Cup for that long…”

Q: How long in Cup?

Johnson: “I don’t have that answer.  I don’t know.  I’m as hungry as I’ve ever been.  I’m as committed as I’ve ever been. It’s not crossing my mind, I have not thought retirement.  I know that social media likes to light up and have different opinions and it’s all a bunch of B.S. I’m here to win races and win championships.  This is my passion, this is my job, this is what I do, this is who I am.  I’m here to race.  If and when I stop racing Cup full-time, I’m still going racing.  I just want to race 20 times a year instead of 38 or 39 times a year.”

Q: Do you have 17 more years left in you?

Johnson: “I don’t know.  That is a good question.  I mean if Bill Elliott can still come back and run one, I mean 17 years from now why can’t I?  It looks like fun.”

Q: With this move do you even think about trying to see if you can win without each other?

Johnson: “I can honestly say it’s not crossed my mind through this process.  That is not some point that I feel like I need to prove or really even thought of.  Of course, I believe I can win and plan on winning in the years to come, but there is not anything behind that.”

Q: If Johnson and William Byron are in the final four next year in Homestead, how does that work out?

Knaus: “We win.”

Johnson (laughs): “I wouldn’t expect anything else.  That is the beauty in it.  That honestly is the beauty and I sure as hell hope we have that situation.  Couldn’t be a better situation than that.”

Knaus: “This is not a whole lot different than what we have done for years at Hendrick Motorsports with teammates running for championships against one another, the 48, the 24, the relationship that we have with Jeff Gordon and Steve Letarte as we were going through those years is no different than the relationship… well it’s not nearly as deep-seeded as the relationship that Jimmie and I have.  It’s going to be fine.  It’s going to be great.  I fully expect him to win races with Kevin.  I fully expect it and I fully expect William and I to win races.  That is the reason we are doing this.”

Q: There is shock value in breaking up the band. Were you aware people wouldn’t believe it when the news broke?

Johnson: “Yeah, I know.  We kind of expected this.  It’s hard to believe and hopefully people will sense where we are at and we can show through our actions as the next couple of months unfold and we work into 2019 people will truly get it.  But, I would imagine there was a lot of shock and wondering if it was April 1st when that press release went out.”

Q: For all the things that you guys have accomplished one of the things is winning a race every season. What does that mean to keep it alive?

Knaus: “It’s important to try to win this season.  I don’t know that that… you guys rely on stats way more than what I do.  But, yeah, contrary to what people believe we go to the race track to win every week.  So, that is kind of the goal and that is what we are going to do.  If the car has the performance to be able to do it and if I can get the set-up right and Jimmie has got the groove that day.  It’s very difficult, we at times made it seem very simple to win races.  Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have made it seem very simple to win races from time to time, but it’s really difficult.  So, a lot of the stars have to align and like I mentioned before, I think we are in a position right now where we are getting pretty close to the stars getting right where we need them to win some races. We are going to some great race tracks.  We have been the last couple of weeks. I really feel we could have won last week if we hadn’t had that freak problem.”

Johnson: “It’s high on my list for sure to get that streak alive.  Other than the obvious, I mean it’s just the obvious things, I want to keep that streak alive.  I know it’s in us.  I guess you do hang on to some stats that float around there although I don’t spend a lot of time looking at them, I take pride in the fact that we have made every Playoff that NASCAR has had so far.  To have 16 winning seasons, I sure as hell want 17 winning seasons.  The Roval, I had a look at one and certainly took a shot at it.  Then last weekend we were just frothing at the mouth ready for that opportunity and didn’t even get to take the green unfortunately.  At least on my list to keep that streak alive.  Obviously, now that the championship opportunity is closed out, that is the next target to have.”

Q: Did you think William Byron would win this year?

Knaus: “I can only go off of his record, so I’m really not a lot different than you.  And knowing the fact that he has won in everything he has been in during his first year, so, I still think he can. We as a company have not given him everything he needs to win races yet.  I think we are at the point now where we are starting to get the cars where they need to be. Obviously, with the performance of the No.9 car and the other cars being elevated over the course of the last handful of weeks, yeah, I think he can still win.  But, yeah, my expectation was for a victory just based off of history.”

Q: How does having Kevin as your crew chief give you a better opportunity to win races?

Johnson: “Well the year is not over yet with Chad, so for starters there is that.  We have a couple of opportunities left.  I haven’t put a lot of thought into that specifically.  I do feel that we have put a lot of time and energy into the 17 years that we have had and a fresh start would suit us both well.  That excitement, energy and the commitment involved, the learning, the communication that takes place to start a new opportunity there is some magic in that.  When new things start up there is always some extra energy and excitement around it.  So, with that in mind I think comes opportunity for both cars and both teams.”

Q: New rules and a new sponsor for the team next season. Did it make sense that 2019 would be a good time to start anew with there being a reset on some key fronts.

Knaus: “I don’t know that played a role.”

Johnson: “I don’t think that played a role it’s just a turning out that way.”

Q: How much will you think back to when you and Jimmie first started and take what worked and what didn’t work take that to leading William Byron next year?

Knaus: “Yeah, there is a lot.  I think we did a lot of very good things early on in our career, but unfortunately, you are not capable of doing a lot of those things now.  We did a lot of testing, we did a lot of 1-on-1 track time.  We did a lot of things from that aspect that you just aren’t able to do per the rules.  Plus, it’s going to be different. Jimmie and I were young and in a different place.  William is young and I’m old. So, it’s going to be a different dynamic.  I’m not 28 years old or however old we were when we started this thing, I’m not.  It’s going to be a little bit different, but there are good lessons learned.  I will definitely lean on Jimmie to find out from his perspective what he thinks I need to do and how I need to interact with William.  We have been fortunate to have Alex (Bowman) and Chase (Elliott) and see these guys develop and how they go, so I’ve got a pretty good indication of how Alan has handled Chase and how that has grown, so yeah, I mean there is a lot of opportunity for me to figure out how to get this thing done and navigate it correctly.”

Q: A lot of people on social media have been asking if the Roval finish was a factor in this decision?

Johnson: “Not even close.”

Knaus: “I think it was already done.”

Johnson: “That wasn’t it.”

Knaus: “No, that wasn’t it.  That was albeit heartbreaking that was not part of it. I wanted to win that race just as bad as he did.  I beat myself up more than I probably ever blamed Jimmie for what happened there.  I think I mentioned it, I could have probably come on the radio and said one or two things and he probably would have maybe thought and checked up a little bit, but my last words to him was ‘go get his ass.’”

Johnson: “I was crossing the start/finish line watching the white flag wave when he said that… yeah, that is what we do, we are there to win.”

Knaus: “I’m going to close with this real quick.  You guys have to realize that he was one of the first people ever to see my child.  I was one of the first to see Genevieve when she was just born.  We have been together for a long time.  I was at his wedding, he was at my wedding, we spend holidays together and that is going to continue and it’s going to continue to grow.  He has got a lot of valuable life lessons for me to learn yet about children and marriage and all that kind of cool stuff. I’m going to continue to lean on him on a lot of different levels and I’m always going to be there for him.”

Q: Do you think you might like to be around each other even more?

Knaus: “You are 100 percent correct.  Every time you leave out of battle you have an emotion a sense in you that you have to deplete before you are able to get back into that space.  So, we have gone through that a lot.  I talked to (Jeff) Gordon about it and he swears that he and Ray (Evernham) are better friends now than what they were when they were winning championships and winning races and I feel like we will be the same way.”

Breaking down Dover’s NASCAR betting week by the numbers

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The numbers are in after the first weekend of at-track sports betting on NASCAR at Dover International Speedway.

In conjunction with the adjacent Dover Downs Casino, the track established a tent in its FanZone to take bets from NASCAR fans just outside its main entrance Saturday and Sunday.

According to the Delaware Lottery, which oversees sports wagering in the state:

  • There was $52,600 wagered on auto racing last week at Delaware’s three casinos, including $12,100 on proposition bets.
  • Since sports betting was legalized June 5, there had been $105,900 bet on auto racing (from a total of $40.1 million wagered). So the amount bet on racing during the week that NASCAR raced at Dover nearly matched the prior total ($53,300). Since its launch four months ago, auto racing has accounted for 0.2 percent of the total amount wagered at Delaware’s three casinos.
  • Of the $601,700 bet on sports at Dover Downs last week, $17,800 was wagered in the FanZone tent (breakdowns according to sports weren’t available).
  • Last week’s “hold” for auto racing, or the amount of money kept by the Delaware Lottery after all bets on the sport were settled, was $3,700 (which is 7 percent of the total wagered on auto racing last week).

According to Dover Downs and track officials:

  • There were at least 50 winning tickets on Chase Elliott, who opened at 10-1 and went off at 17-1 before his second career victory.
  • Over the course of two days, nearly 3,000 bets were made at the tent, which had a line of more than 50 people during prerace Sunday.
  • The breakdown of NASCAR betting was roughly 60 percent on race or stage winners, 20 percent on matchups between two drivers and 20 percent on proposition betting.

 

Ryan: For Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, split is perfect timing again

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Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have been so good doing everything else together in racing, it’s no surprise they’re even good at splitting up.

They’ve always had a knack for timing, and this is the opportune moment for the conscious uncoupling of the crew chief-driver combination that redefined the bar for excellence in NASCAR’s premier series … and which now seems to have run its course.

The signs are exigent:

–Knaus and Johnson have made a first-round exit from the playoffs for the second time in four seasons.

–Since last year, they’ve been supplanted as Hendrick Motorsports’ lead team by the No. 9 of Alan Gustafson-Chase Elliott (who have won two of the past nine races while Johnson remains mired in a career-long 53-race winless streak).

–And the No. 48 Chevrolet whose continuity has been synonymous with Johnson and Knaus since 2002 will bear a fresh paint scheme and sponsor in 2019.

It’s the right time for a clean break and new chapter, but only after a well-deserved epilogue (that still could include one final trip to victory lane, particularly given the speed of their cars lately).

The most successful duo in NASCAR history won’t win a record eighth championship together, but they will give the world a six-race farewell tour to appreciate their greatness, along with the yin and yang possessed by any legendary pairing.

This is NASCAR’s version of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady leaving the building, and the parallels go beyond just the coinciding dynasties built on the field (five Super Bowl wins in 17 seasons from ’01-17 for the Patriots) vs. on the track (seven Cup championships in 17 seasons from ’02-18 for the No. 48).

With his drill sergeant demeanor and obsessively tactical preparations, Knaus has every bit the field general presence of Belichick (along with an exacting precision under fire that team owner Rick Hendrick once said would have made Knaus into “a damn fine Navy SEAL”).

He is the crew chief who had the gumption to fire his underperforming pit crew during a 2010 playoff race … and then win a fifth consecutive championship two weeks later with a new outfit.

And just like Brady, the suave and debonair quarterback who is cool facing pressure while always pleasantly agreeable with a wide smile, Johnson comes off as the calming driving force who rarely makes mistakes while turning blazing laps with the steadiness of a metronome.

He is the driver who took a catnap in his cockpit during a red flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway just before he smoothly executed the restart of his life to win the 2016 finale and his seventh championship.

There is hardly any overlap in their relationship roles, and their longtime understanding of that is why it has worked so well for so long.

Knaus has been the leader who governs with a gruff and unquestioned brilliance, and Johnson has been the superstar who subjugates himself for the greater good.

“It’s not something we or anyone at Hendrick when they paired us together saw, but it’s one of the things we’ve learned about our relationship,” Johnson said in a 2014 interview. “Chad and I made this decision early on, and I told him right away, ‘Man, I’ve always been good at listening and adapting. We need one guy at the helm. I’ll put my trust in you, and I’ll just take direction.’ So that’s been our philosophy.

“I’ve always been in that position of looking up to someone and being mentored by someone. That’s really been key. With Chad’s personality, if he had a strong-minded and very opinionated (driver) that was similar to his, I think it would be pretty volatile.”

Yet there still has been turbulence.

After their run of five consecutive championships, 2011 was a season on the brink for Johnson and Knaus, who openly bickered like an old married couple on the team’s radio. Those signs of public friction had prompted questions before about their working partnership’s expiration date.

After all, we know they infamously had considered a divorce since before they ever won a title.

An argument during the 2005 season finale – when Knaus kept his car on track until a crash despite Johnson’s insistence there was a tire going flat that would cause the wreck — led to Hendrick brokering a peace with the “milk and cookies” meeting (the theme was to highlight their juvenilia) that buried the hatchet and began the record title run.

That historic march was built on pitch-perfect chemistry between a laid-back Californian and a brusque Midwesterner who always seemed to make every right move together.

Their final move to separate is no different.

It still somehow just feels right — like virtually everything else they did before it.

That’s the legacy of Jimmie and Chad.

Rick Hendrick says Jimmie Johnson sponsorship news coming soon

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DOVER, Del. — Rick Hendrick said his team will have sponsorship news about Jimmie Johnson‘s No. 48 Chevrolet within the next 30 days.

In response to a question from NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long, the Hendrick Motorsports owner said the search for new sponsors had taken longer in part because Johnson had become so synonymous with Lowe’s, which announced in March that it would not be returning after sponsoring the seven-time champion since his 2002 rookie season.

“Sponsorships in general have been tough for everyone, and for Jimmie, we haven’t had any sponsor other than Lowe’s,” Hendrick said. “We’ve had some opportunities, but there was a conflict with some of the other sponsors we had. But we’re pretty excited. We’re going to have an announcement probably in the next 30 days or so, and I feel real good about it.

“But it’s really hard when you have someone that has been so successful, but they have been tied to one brand for a long time.  We’re excited about the next chapter there.”

After reports that the home improvement company might be reconsidering its decision and sponsoring some of Johnson’s race in 2019, Lowe’s released a statement last month to reaffirm its departure from NASCAR.